As Russian forces started to hand over control of the Georgian town of Gori yesterday, you could detect a note of surprise, even disappointment, in many media reports. So the all-out Russian invasion of plucky little democratic Georgia might not be going to happen after all. Could it be that the bear was drawing in his claws?
Well, Russia did not have long to worry about losing its reputation as backyard bully. Within hours, the United States envoy to Georgia was spinning a whole new myth to the BBC about how it was only decisive US intervention – by which he presumably meant the warplanes laden with humanitarian aid by then ostentatiously parked at Tbilisi airport – that the mighty erstwhile Red Army had been turned back.
The many Georgians who had counted on more timely and robust assistance from their US protector surely laughed a bitter laugh. But there were signs, with the arrival of the US Secretary of State in Georgia, that this version was gaining hold. The story of this war, it seems, will be that the US faced down a snarling, expansionist Russia, and forced it to limp back to its lair.
This is a travesty. But it is only the latest and most glaring in a series of Western misrepresentations and misreadings of Russian intentions throughout this sorry episode. They began with the repeated references to Russian "aggression" and "invasion", continued through charges of intended "regime change", and culminated in alarmist reports about Russian efforts to bomb the east-west energy pipeline. None of this, not one bit of it, is true.
Take "aggression" and "invasion". Georgia declared itself to be in a state of war with Russia. War, regrettably, is war, and a basic objective is to reduce, or destroy, the enemy's military capability. This is what Russia was doing until it accepted the ceasefire. The positions it took up inside Georgia proper can be seen as defensive, not offensive. Gori houses the Georgian garrison on South Ossetia's border.
And anyway, how did hostilities begin? Georgia sent troops into South Ossetia. The status of that region – which declared unilateral independence – is anomalous. It is inside Georgia's borders, but outside its control. But one reason why the dispute has not been solved is that the "fudge" over independence brought with it a degree of stability. Georgia's action upset that stability. But did anyone describe it as "aggression"? Trying to explain Russian "aggression", many reports went further, observing a "new" mood of Russian aggressive nationalism. Today's Russia, they reasoned, was uniquely liable to lash out, because energy wealth had fuelled new national ambitions. Where, though, is the evidence that Russian national pride is automatically malign?
If you exclude Chechnya, which Russians have always regarded as part of Russia, then neither Putin, nor Medvedev, had sent troops outside Russian borders before this point. As for the idea that Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union – derived from his remark about the Soviet collapse being "among the greatest catastrophes" of the 20th century – nothing could be further from what he did. Far from hankering after a lost empire, Putin used his years as president systematically to fix Russia's post-Soviet borders, signing treaties with every neighbouring country that would agree – including, last month, China. Of course, Russia does not like the idea of another Nato member on its borders. But this is not the same as wanting to restore "ex-Soviet space". It reflects Russia's view of its legitimate security interests.
Perhaps the most pernicious assumption over the past week, however, is that Russia wanted to effect "regime-change". Russian officials categorically denied this, insisting that they had no business overthrowing an elected leader. You might scoff, but Russia has done nothing that would contradict this. The Kremlin would probably be delighted if Georgians eventually punished their President for his misguided enterprise, but Russia seems to accept that Georgians decide what happens in Georgia.
Why was it so difficult for outsiders to believe that Moscow wanted precisely what its leaders said they wanted: a return to the situation that had pertained before Georgia's incursion into South Ossetia – and does it matter that its intentions were so appallingly misread? Yes it does. If outsiders impute to Moscow motives and objectives it does not have, they alienate Russia even further, and make a long-term solution of many international problems that more difficult. It is high time we treated Russia's post-Soviet leaders as responsible adults representing a legitimate national interest, rather than assuming the stereotypical worst.